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“Until” is not as significant as it’s made out to be (Romans 11:25)

This is a follow-up to my previous post: What does “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26) mean?

Often those who argue for the “eschatological miracle” option in Romans 11:26 (i.e. a wholesale turning of the Jewish people to Christ when he returns) point to the decisive significance of the word “until” in Romans 11:25:

… a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until (ἄχρι οὗ) the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved … (Rom 11:25b-26a)

The claim is that the word “until” necessarily implies a subsequent change of circumstances. According to this claim, a plain reading of verse 25 must assume that when Paul uses the word “until”, he is implying that the partial hardening will be taken away from Israel when the fullness of the Gentile has come in (i.e. at the parousia / return of Christ). Hence, when Paul says “in this way” in verse 26, he is pointing back to the clear implication of verse 25: i.e. the way in which all Israel will be saved is that when Jesus returns, the partial hardening will be taken away from Israel.

But this ain’t necessarily so. Let’s just assume for the moment that this claim is true. That is, let’s assume that when somebody in New Testament Greek says: “X happens until Y”, they are necessarily implying that X stops at point Y.

Now let’s read another part of the Bible with this assumption in mind. It’s Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin in Acts 7:

But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt until (ἄχρι οὗ) there arose over Egypt another king who did not know Joseph. (Acts 7:17-18)

OK, so that means Stephen is trying to communicate to the Sanhedrin that the population growth of God’s people ceased when a new king arose over Egypt? I.e. Stephen wants them to know that ignorant Pharaohs cause Hebrew fertility to plummet or stabilise? Well … actually, no. His point simply is that during the time between Abraham’s descendants entering Egypt and the time when God was about to fulfil his promise to bring them to worship him in the land of Canaan, they multiplied a lot. This multiplication is particularly significant during the period of slavery, because it shows God’s faithfulness to give Abraham offspring, and it also provides the obvious reason why the Pharaoh was so keen to expose the Hebrew infants. The phrase “X happened until Y” is not trying to make a point about the cessation of X after Y. It is merely saying that, for the purposes of the story, X was particularly significant during the period up to and including Y.

This shows that there is a problem with our assumption. Hence it shows that this particular argument for the “eschatological miracle”, (i.e. the assumption that there is a particular necessary implication of the word “until”), is unfounded. Paul might just be using the word “until” to claim that the partial hardening of Israel is particularly significant for gentile salvation, without implying anything about the timing of its removal.

Of course, this doesn’t rule out the eschatological miracle. But it does show that the question has to be resolved by looking at the context of Romans 11:25-26, not by focussing on one particular word. And to my mind, Zoccali’s article puts forward a strong case from the context that the “eschatological miracle” is not the best reading of Romans 11:25-26. Hence, I reiterate my commendation of his article.

PS Zoccali uses 1 Cor 11:26 to make a similar point; see “‘And So All Israel will be Saved’: Competing Interpretations of Romans 11.26 in Pauline Scholarship.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 30, no. 3 (2008): 289-318, here page 306. While 1 Cor 11:26 is another Pauline text dealing with the Parousia (and therefore an obvious place to go), I think that there are ambiguities here which might be a problem for his argument–i.e. some people might in fact argue that Paul is implying that the Lord’s Supper will cease at the Parousia. So I’ve chosen Acts 7:17-18 instead, which I think is less ambiguous.

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