Skip to content

The olive tree is not about Gentiles joining Israel (Romans 11:17-24)

A short while ago I wrote a post claiming that Paul doesn’t ever teach that the Gentiles are included in Israel. I said:

Gentiles don’t need to be included in Israel. In fact, the opposite is true; we Gentiles are saved by faith in Christ without being included in Israel. That’s one of the apostle Paul’s big points in Romans and Galatians … Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians are united, not in Israel, but in the promises to Abraham and ultimately in Christ.

The natural counter to this claim is: “What about the allegory of the olive tree in Romans 11? Doesn’t that clearly assume that the Gentiles join Israel?” This question is based on a common assumption that the olive tree in Romans 11:17-24 refers to Israel, and that the image of the Gentiles being “grafted in” to this olive tree (e.g. 11:17) must therefore refer to the Gentiles joining Israel. That is, the olive-tree analogy is commonly read ecclesiologically.

But really, this ecclesiological reading of the olive tree doesn’t work when you start to read the passage carefully. I think that it makes far more sense to read the olive tree theologically (with, of course, implications for both Israel and the Gentiles). That is, the all-important root of the olive tree in Romans 11:17-24 doesn’t stand for Israel, but for God’s promises of salvation (and I think especially his promises to Abraham, who is not only the father of Israel but the father of many nations, see Romans 4).

I’ve just read an article by Nikolaus Walter which makes this point very clearly. Since the article is in German, I thought I’d translate some of the key points for English readers:

When interpreting an allegory, we must always be controlled by the question: What does the author probably want to say in the given context, and what lies beyond his immediate horizon? The main problem for the interpretation of Romans 11:17-24 seems to me to be the question: Who or what is Paul speaking about when he talks about the olive tree with its root, trunk and “sap”; i.e. the olive tree along with the “fatness” which proceeds from the root, which is of course the distinguishing honour of the olive tree and makes it suitable as an allegory of salvation?
[pp. 179-180]

In my opinion the olive tree, or the trunk, and particularly the root, “is” not = Israel, despite Jeremiah 11:16 ff. For “Israel” is in fact what has branched out of the olive tree, which currently–by virtue of its non-acceptance of Christ Jesus–is in its greater part excluded from the olive tree (Rom 11:25 b).
[p. 180]

If the cultivated olive tree, its root and the fat which flows from it into the branches (or fruits!) (Rom 11:17) is to point concretely at anything, then it points above all to God–to his election and promises and the grace of salvation which flows out from him–but it should not be immediately identified with Israel as a people. Israel, which until now has been that which branches out of the olive tree, has grown on this cultivated olive tree; it has its own history of God and salvation in its past and as its foundation; however it “is” not itself this foundation; the root, the trunk, the fat.
(pp. 180-181)

And now they [the Gentiles] are through God’s salvific action in Christ planted not in Israel, but rather they are included in the salvific activity of the God of Israel.
(p. 181)

The often-applied sentance Rom 11:18 b does not imply that the Gentile Christians are supported by Israel as their “root”. Rather, what is actually said to the Gentile Christians is that they should not boast with respect to the now-broken-off branches, i.e. with respect to Israel; for even they, the Gentile Christians, “support” not the root, but rather are supported by it (but not by the broken-off branches); i.e. they have not become branches on the olive tree and participated in its “fat” by their own power, but rather they are “supported” by God and his gracious election enacted in Jesus Christ, just as formerly Israel was and also yet again will be.
(pp. 181-182)

Walter, Nikolaus. “Zur Interpretation von Römer 9-11.” Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 81 (1984): 172-195.

Published inBiblical theologyChurchGeneralPaulRomans

2 Comments

  1. A good point and well made Lionel. Unfortunately it is too easy for us to jump to conclusions by not reading the Bible carefully enough!

    And thanks for the translation – my German is pretty poor!

    • Thanks Richard. I’m glad my supervisor keeps encouraging me to learn German (though it’s still very basic) – there’s so much material written by German scholars, many of whom are very careful about their Bible reading – often very helpful material that just doesn’t get through into English-language biblical studies.

Comments are closed.

Publications by Lionel Windsor:

  • Lift Your Eyes: Reflections on Ephesians

Recent blog posts

  • The Shambles, York, UKBuilt together (Ephesians 2:20–22)
    Is every church on its own? How are Christian believers connected with other believers with whom we don’t meet regularly: in our region, nation, and world?
  • “Do not weep for me, weep for yourselves…” (Luke 23:28)
    Why do Christians lament? Sometimes we lament out of sympathy, but sometimes we weep for ourselves. This is the kind of lament that Jesus calls for here.
  • Busts in Vatican Museum, RomeNo second-class Christians (Ephesians 2:19)
    Even if we don’t say it out loud, we can often act as if there are different classes of Christians. But the gospel teaches us there are no second-class Christians.
  • Photo by Larm Rmah on UnsplashChrist the missionary (Ephesians 2:17–18)
    Christ is a missionary. Christ does stranger evangelism. Christ preaches to the choir. Christ crosses cultures. Christ brings peace. So says the Apostle Paul. What does he mean?
  • Fragment of the Berlin WallChrist the wall breaker (Ephesians 2:14–16)
    In this broken and rebellious world, our healthy boundaries often become hostile walls. But the cross of Christ breaks down walls and brings reconciliation.
  • Photo by John Tyson on UnsplashThe blood that brings us close (Ephesians 2:11–13)
    Despite our best desires and efforts, we humans are not very good at living up close with others. This has become devastatingly obvious in the recent Christchurch shootings. Yet in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul talks about a conflict that really was healed. This passage is about a real closeness that all believers in Christ must remember: a closeness that is fundamental to our identity.
  • Photo by foundinbklyn on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)Good works and salvation: What’s the connection? (Ephesians 2:8–10)
    A joke letter from an Australian church offering its financial donors priority access to heaven raises questions for all of us. Do our good deeds give us access to heaven? Or are our good deeds irrelevant? Where do our good deeds fit when it comes to salvation?
  • Security Threat. Photo by Andrew Neel on UnsplashA question of security (Ephesians 2:6–7)
    As I write this, New Zealand is shocked and grieving. My own nation Australia is shocked and grieving too, along with them. But news stories about terror attacks and shootings in our world are far too common, aren’t they? And whenever we hear of them, they bring to mind all sorts of questions. One of them is the question of security. As we grieve for the victims, we also think a little about ourselves. We wonder whether some day we too might be in the wrong place at the wrong time when a seemingly random attack happens. It’s unsettling. It’s not just a matter of national security; it’s also a matter of our own personal security. Paul is talking in Ephesians 2:6–7 about a security that belongs to everyone who believes in Jesus Christ. It’s not a guarantee of perfect national security or job security or financial security or security in relationships and health. Nor is it a guarantee that we will always feel perfectly secure. But it is still a real security, more unshakeable and deep-rooted than any other kind of security could be. So what is this security, and where does it come from?
  • Walking past a telephone booth in OxfordThis love (Ephesians 2:4–5)
    “God loves you”: if I say just those three words, you may not hear what I want you to hear. This is because of a communication problem that arises whenever Christians try to talk about biblical concept of God’s “love”. When we say “love” we mean one thing—something wonderful and life-changing. But the word means quite different things to many English speakers. For example, the word “love” often means “strong desire”. So if I say “God loves you” then it might sound like I’m saying “God has strong feelings for you”. Another, increasingly common, understanding of “love” is the idea of “unconditional approval”. In this view, the way to “love” somebody is to affirm and approve of everything they do. So if I don’t approve of your actions and actively affirm everything you do, then by definition I’m not “loving” you (in fact, by definition I’m “hating” you). On this common definition of “love”, if I say “God loves you” then it might sound like I’m saying “God affirms everything about you and your actions”. But that’s not what the Bible means by God’s “love” either. Given this communication problem, how can I best explain the idea of God’s “love”? Well, it’s not actually that hard. The best way is to see how the word works when the Bible uses it. In Ephesians 2:4–5, Paul uses the word “love”. But he doesn’t just say “God loves you”. He explains and spells out what that love means. And he helps us to see what God’s love really means, and how amazing it is.
  • Entering a tomb in PompeiiWe too: the offenders (Ephesians 2:3)
    Judgmentalism. It’s a bigger problem than we think. Judgmentalism is certainly a danger for God’s people. That’s because God’s people have God’s word. God’s word helps God’s people to see how wonderful God is, and how terrible humanity is in comparison. But Ephesians 2:3 contains two highly significant, emphatic words: “we too”. We too, says Paul, were the offenders. We, too, were the disobedient. These words aren’t talking about all those horrible people “out there”. They’re talking about God’s people. And it’s something we, too, need to hear. These words tell us something incredibly important—something that we ignore at our peril.

On this site

All content copyright Lionel Windsor